As the pandemic has shown us the necessity of having a digital infrastructure in place, to keep as much of the everyday life going as possible, it seems that big parts of our democratic system are still fully physical and therefore put on hold for a while. As this crisis seems to be an all-year event, this could be a major threat to our democratic system on multiple levels.
Parliament processes are on hold
With COVID-19, legislative processes are standing still or being significantly slowed down in many places.
“Many legislatures, including the European Parliament, have already cancelled all but the most essential meetings and debates until further notice — an acceptance, however reluctant, of the enormous logistical obstacles they now confront” (Politico)
In institutions such as the United States Congress or the EU parliament, anonymity is not required (most of the times) — voters can see what their representative voted for. This is different than in general elections where votes are secret and that is also why many risks of distance voting are mitigated in these cases. The shift to a virtual democratic structure in the legislative faces less technical than cultural issues.
In the US, to avoid disrupting the whole political system during a time where legislation has to be pushed through the two bodies of government quickly, house members, as well as Senate members, have been calling for a remote voting process to be implemented in cases of emergency. Nancy Pelosi speaker of the house, and Mitch McConnell majority leader in the Senate, have both declined these requests. A report about potential new ways to hold the votes in both bodies, and the challenges that it holds, can — according to the New York times — be boiled down to the conclusion that “change is hard”.
In Europe, we can see efforts to digitize the legislative processes, even though they seem to be rather improvised. Last week, the EU’s College of Commissioners held its weekly meeting by teleconference for the first time and is switching its decision-making process to the so-called “written procedure”. Non-essential or non-urgent meetings are postponed or cancelled, while others are going to be held on video conference.
In the EU Parliament, the MEP´s switched to a remote voting procedure that involves printing a form, signing it, scanning and e-mailing it back to parliament.
“it’s a little bit made up on the spot for this immediate session and then the European Parliament will work out slowly and surely how they can conduct this kind of remote voting sessions for the foreseeable future.” Nicolai von Ondarza, Political Scientist at Stiftung für Wissenschaft und Politik (Euranet).
There have been questions raised regarding the safety of this e-mail voting procedure and it truly seems like a complicated and insecure way of holding a vote, especially considering much more sophisticated e-voting solution that is already on the market. Still, even though the e-mail solution seems like a last-minute improvisation where there should have been a procedure for extraordinary circumstances in place, it might be the smaller of two evils, as the alternative is to spread a dangerous illness among the meeting rooms and parliamentary halls of our decision-makers. But it requires habits to change and to change quickly.
Elections are postponed
But it’s not only Parliaments that are put on hold. COVID-19 is challenging even more deeply citizen votes in sovereign elections.
Most nations are poorly set up to organize remote voting for the broader population and there has not been much progress in many democracies towards finding a secure e-voting solution to be able to vote by phone or home computer. For this reason, countries and regions have been forced to postpone elections or have moved to remote voting.
The local elections in France that took place on March 15th have been held physically just a day before starting the national lock-down, a decision which has been criticized widely. The second round of the local polls have been postponed.
In the United States, as of today, 16 states have been announcing the postponement of the democratic primaries. The presidential election — which hasn’t even been postponed during the 1918 Influenza pandemic — is scheduled to be held on the 3rd of November. It seems constitutionally impossible to postpone it.
Wisconsin held a statewide election on the 7th of April. People of Wisconsin voted on the Democratic primaries as well as the general election for offices such as a state Supreme Court seat. Due to the pandemic, many voters switched to remote voting by absentee ballot and the state has been caught off-guard with the number of requests and wasn’t able to provide every voter with their ballot on time.
The US Supreme Court denied a request to extend the deadline for absentee votes, citizens who haven’t been able to send in their ballots in time — due to the fact they haven’t received them by election day — will not be counted. Many were left with the feeling that they had been forced to either endanger themselves by showing up at a polling station or waive their right to vote.
Why are we so unprepared for the crisis?
Remote voting solutions exist and have been tried on many occasions. Email voting has been used for example in the German Land Bavaria for their regional elections on the 15th of March. Countries like Estonia or some cantons in Switzerland have been developing over time more robust solutions based on double envelopes. Yet, no e-voting solution can grant nowadays full security and anonymity. A recent study from the Helsinki university has scored different e-voting methods in terms of confidentiality (ballot secrecy, receipt-freeness, coercion resistance, fairness), integrity (universal, individual and verifiable) and availability (denial-of-service resistance). No solutions are able to respond positively to all requirements. But there is no technological problem that a joint open and coordinated effort between democracies cannot solve. Blockchain-based voting needs to be part of the research, given its decentralized trust mechanisms (and blockchains with embedded voting mechanisms offer particularly promising perspectives in that respect). Let’s make it a priority!